Lisa Bubert

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Run away to Granny’s house, where the fields are vast and grassy and the pecan tree is old and tall and perfect for climbing. But before we can do that, a girl named Nell must bury a seed in a pot. Before we can find out how high we can climb in that pecan tree, Nell must water a sprout. Before we can discover “a nest filled with eggs” and witness “three chicks hatching free,” Nell must ensure that her potted seedling gets plenty of sunlight. And before we can find treasures (“a long strip of bark / and a shell / and a stone / and a leaf flecked with holes”), Nell must plant her tree in the ground. 

In Nell Plants a Tree, author Anne Wynter draws on many of the techniques that made her debut picture book, Everybody in the Red Brick Building, so successful. She leverages her eye for detail to highlight the loveliest moments of a child’s day spent playing in a field, finding the ideal spot for reading at Granny’s house and baking a delicious pie with the tree’s pecans. Wynter’s prose is spare, lighting like a little blue bird on the moments that matter, and it combines with Daniel Miyares’ recognizable ink and gouache artwork to skillfully elicit the feel of a lazy summer day.

Wynter’s text travels back and forth in time, as do Miyares’ illustrations. We see, for instance, Granny pouring lemonade for her grandchildren as they all gather on her porch, then we turn the page and find a young Nell giving her sprout a drink from a metal watering can. Nell’s and Granny’s dresses are similar shades of yellow, offering a hint that the young girl and the grandmother are the same person. This becomes clear as Nell’s tree grows along with her, her children and then her grandchildren. 

Text and image couldn’t be better paired than they are here. The concept underlying Nell Plants a Tree is a tricky one that would be difficult for any writer and illustrator to pull off, yet Wynter and Miyares succeed handily. Generations of readers will be inspired by this sweet story to plant seeds of their own.

Author Anne Wynter’s prose lights like a little blue bird on moments that matter in this sweet, spare picture book.
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Dani’s drab days are revived by color and beauty when a tree is planted in the “sometimes dusty, sometimes puddly” hole in the sidewalk in front of her home. Now, instead of waking each morning to the clamorous cacophony of city traffic, Dani greets her day with birdsong from nesting friends outside her window. 

Dani quickly learns that the tree is so much more than just a tree: It’s also a helpful guide to dressing for the weather (“leaves fluttering said breezy today . . . branches bending said bundle up”), a soothing, protective presence against the city’s noise and pollution and a listening ear for Dani’s “stories, wonders, worries” and more. 

Some people don’t seem to appreciate the tree as much as Dani does. She finds signs tacked to its bark and trash dumped around its trunk, and she even sees a dog doing its business beneath its branches! But Dani and a group of kindhearted neighbors work together to care for the tree so that everyone will be able to enjoy it for years to come. 

The City Tree highlights a special relationship that will be instantly recognizable to any child who has their own beloved city tree. Author Shira Boss’ text is lovely and engaging, filled with creative and vivid turns of phrase. Dani’s sidewalk is “a carpet of concrete,” for instance, and when winter comes, the tree’s bare branches “rested like paintbrushes in a cup.” Four pages of illustrated back matter elaborate on the importance of urban trees and how city dwellers can support such trees, providing resources for further investigation. 

Illustrator Lorena Alvarez goes above and beyond to make The City Tree shine, telling her own story right alongside Boss’ prose. She builds a wonderful contrast between the cold, gray hues of Dani’s city street that give way to the slow spread of bright, saturated colors once the tree is planted. Page by page, the windows of the buildings around the tree fill with more people following creative pursuits—bakers, sculptors, musicians, designers, all seemingly inspired by the new burst of life heralded by the tree. Alvarez also incorporates subtle examples of all the ways the neighborhood cares for the tree, from building birdhouses and planting flowers around its base to picking up litter and recycling. 

It can be easy to imagine cities as places disconnected from the natural world, but The City Tree is an excellent reminder that nature can flourish wherever it’s nurtured—even outside your own window. 

It’s easy to imagine cities as disconnected from the natural world, but The City Tree is an excellent reminder that nature can flourish where it’s nurtured.
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Poor Nubby. The plush toy rabbit has been “carried, buried, dropped, dragged, torn, worn, chewed on, sat on, and even used as a nose wipe. Repeatedly.” What a life! No wonder Nubby decides to head off in search of a place where he’ll be far more appreciated than he is at home. 

First, Nubby tries making friends with the real rabbits in the yard, but they ignore him. Next, he joins a neighbor child’s magic show in the hope of achieving stardom, but that doesn’t work out either. Finally, Nubby decides that wealth must be the answer, but he soon discovers that there is no greater treasure than being truly loved.

Nubby is filled with hilarious illustrations and well-written prose that begs to be read aloud. Illustrator Shanda McCloskey excels at creating emotions from simple lines and shapes. Nubby exudes dour displeasure as he’s picked and pulled at, his angry unibrow a single thick squiggle. He can’t speak to protest his rough treatment, since his mouth is merely a thin vertical line descending from a pink triangle nose. Despite the many injustices Nubby endures, there’s also buoyant joy in McCloskey’s illustrations, from the dog who is all too happy to run around the neighborhood with Nubby in his mouth to the gratitude of the boy who hugs Nubby tightly upon his return and, yes, still sometimes uses our hero as a hankie.

Author Dan Richards doesn’t miss a moment for humor in his writing, using repetition and grandiosity to give the story a dramatic flair. This approach might go over the heads of the youngest of readers, who may also be troubled by an image of Nubby lying on the ground, tattered and surrounded by white stuffing, accompanied by text that describes how “the pain in his chest cut deep, deeper than torn cloth and strewn stuffing.” Yet the story’s wit and dramatic tension are sure to make it a crowd pleaser among a slightly older and more worldly readership.

Nubby is a worthy tribute to all the beleaguered, beloved toys who serve as constant, comforting companions through childhood.

Nubby the plush rabbit goes off in search of greener pastures in this hilarious tribute to the toys who serve as constant, comforting companions through childhood.
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“I wake up very early,” says the unnamed protagonist of Nora Ericson and Elly MacKay’s picture book. Too early, the child’s father repeatedly echoes as he rouses himself from bed to make the coffee, wake the dogs but not the baby, and sit outside to watch the sun rise with his little morning companion. 

Ericson’s story is poetic and sweet, one that every adult with a tiny early riser of their own will surely recognize. She pays particular attention to sounds. Daddy goes “shuffle shuffle down the stairs,” the dogs “snuffle snuffle, s-t-r-e-e-e-t-c-h-h-h,” and then “burble burble goes the coffeepot.” Her words compel readers to speak them quietly: “Now the wind is waking. Tickle tickle on my cheeks, rustle rustle through the leaves.” The book’s soundscape gently awakens the mind and makes for an engaging, comforting read.

The book’s warm lyricism becomes truly beautiful when paired with MacKay’s illustrations, which perfectly capture the experience of a sleepy morning routine. MacKay washes every spread in hushed blues, from the deep navy of a bedroom shadow, to the blue-gray steam rising from Daddy’s coffee cup to fog up his glasses, to the nearly white-blue light of daybreak. The book is packed with noteworthy images, such as when the small child, lovey in tow, stands silhouetted in the doorway of Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. In the darkness before dawn, stars twinkle over the quiet front porch. The moon glows above as the family watches from below. “Hello, Moon,” the child says. “You’re lucky, you get to stay up all night.” 

Too Early is an ideal book for adults and children to enjoy together, especially on one of those snoozy mornings when no one feels quite ready to face the world just yet. Go ahead, it says. Snuggle up and enjoy a little lie-in, with coffee for the grown-up, warm milk for the little one and a glorious sunrise to start the day. 

Too Early is the perfect picture book to snuggle up with on a sleepy morning when neither adults nor little ones feel ready for the day to begin just yet.
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“Grandma’s been staying with us since she got sick,” reads the opening line of The Bird Feeder, which gently ushers readers into a difficult, necessary story. “That means now I can visit with her anytime I want,” reads the next line, letting the reader know that, while this story might be sad, there are also lovely moments ahead—promise. 

The narrator loves their grandmother, so the new arrangement is a welcome change. Together, they watch the bird feeder outside her window and create drawings of the birds they see. They especially admire the cardinals, which are Grandma’s favorite. Then Grandma moves to a new home. “Do you remember when I told you about the hospice?” asks the child’s mother, giving readers the opportunity to learn as well. “You told me it’s where Grandma will go when she needs to be more comfortable,” the narrator answers.

The child brings the bird feeder to the hospice so that Grandma can watch the birds through her new window. They continue to watch birds and draw, but they also enjoy bowls of purple Jell-O and visits from a therapy dog, and a pair of cardinals build a nest in the tree near the feeder. The days pass quietly and eventually, Grandma dies. “I’m glad Grandma saw the baby birds,” the narrator says. “I’m sad she won’t see them leave their nest.”

Few books handle death and dying as gracefully as The Bird Feeder. Author Andrew Larsen and illustrator Dorothy Leung don’t shy away from the realities of a hospice facility, including a nurse with gloves and a stethoscope, and a hospital bed with guardrails that nonetheless looks comfortable and homey. “I thought [the hospice] would be scary. But it’s not,” the narrator reveals. “It smells like pancakes.” Particularly poignant is the spread where the narrator and their mother say goodbye to Grandma as she sleeps, her lips turned down and eyes closed. The narrator sees three baby birds in the nest outside and squeezes their grandmother’s hand three times. 

Being present with someone who is dying can be one of life’s most remarkable experiences, and The Bird Feeder avoids portraying death as something that happens invisibly or behind closed doors. Larsen and Leung depict a difficult subject with dignity, leaving readers with a reminder that we can continue to remember and honor our loved ones, even after they are no longer with us. 

Few books handle death and dying as gracefully as The Bird Feeder, a difficult, necessary story that contains many moments of loveliness and poignancy.
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Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules

Lupe Lopez is ready to rock and roll her way into kindergarten. Fresh from a summer of drumming and perfecting her hip new look, she knows all rock stars make their own rules. Lupe is committed to never letting anyone tell her what to do, being as loud as possible and making “fans, not friends.” Unsurprisingly, this works great for Lupe—but not so well for Ms. Quintanilla, Lupe’s new teacher. 

Little by little, Lupe learns that even rock stars have to adhere to the rules (sometimes). Drumming belongs more on a stage than in the classroom, and friends are much better than fans—especially when they start a band together! Best of all, Lupe finds a way to remain the one-of-a-kind, “Texas-size” kindergarten rock star she is. 

Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules is a fun, fresh addition to the back-to-school picture book canon. It’s perfect for young readers who march to the beat of their own drums but may benefit from a gentle reminder to respect the needs of others around them. 

Lupe is the brainchild of a picture book dream team: co-writers e.E Charlton-Trujillo and Pat Zietlow Miller (Be Kind), and illustrator Joe Cepeda. Stonewall Award-winning Charlton-Trujillo’s influence as a South Texas native is clear in the familiar and joyful portrait of Lupe’s predominantly Latinx Hector P. Garcia Elementary school, complete with the requisite map of Texas on the classroom wall and bilingual labeling of classroom objects. (Don’t miss the nod to legendary Tejano musician Selena in Ms. Quintanilla’s name.) 

Zietlow Miller’s signature voice contributes to the story’s rhythm and narrative structure, both of which make Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules an excellent read-aloud. Children will love drumming along with Lupe when she shouts “¡Ran! ¡Rataplán! Boom-tica-bam! ¡Pit-a-pat. Rat-a-tat. Wham-wham-wham! ¡Soy famosa!” 

Pura Belpré Honor recipient Cepeda’s crisp, classical illustration style is perfect for a story with this much heart. He spares no detail in bringing Lupe to life on the page, right down to the pigtails in her hair and the pencils she uses for her drumsticks. 

Together, Charlton-Trujillo, Zietlow Miller and Cepeda have created an unforgettable heroine who will leap off the page and right onto your bookshelf. Fans of feisty heroines such as Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances, Ian Falconer’s Olivia and Monica Brown and Sara Palacios’ Marisol McDonald will be clamoring to join Lupe’s band.

One Boy Watching

As many children in rural areas know, living in the country often means being the first to board the school bus in the morning and the last to get dropped off at the end of the day. It means mornings of quiet reflection as the world wakes up and evenings spent on winding gravel roads toward home. 

One Boy Watching is a nearly wordless picture book that opens as the sun is just barely beginning to rise, when a school bus arrives at a boy’s rural home. Some introductory descriptions follow the unnamed protagonist as he steps onto the bus (“Twenty-eight empty seats. . . . One bus at sunrise under an infinite sky.”), but the scene’s beauty can be found in the serene spaces between those phrases. The reader is invited to sit peacefully, to breathe deeply, to soak in the prismatic watercolor and colored pencil sunrise skies. 

Author-illustrator Grant Snider, the creator of the popular webcomic “Incidental Comics,” reprises the same hushed feeling found in his earlier picture books, including What Color Is Night and What Sound Is Morning. His artistry seems simple: It’s light on distinct detail and heavy on bold lines, capturing the shapes of objects just barely visible in the early dawn, such as bulbous trees or the peak of a roof. Later spreads contain sights that will be familiar to rural school bus riders: pastures of hay bales, the glow of headlights in the early dawn, fields of rusted cars, water towers, the silhouettes of distant barns and feed silos. 

The real wow factor, however, is in the quietly powerful way that Snider uses color. By blending colors, lines and shapes into one another, Snider mimics the blur of what children see from a bus window on the way to school. As the journey continues and more children board the bus, the reader can almost hear the sound of their laughter, the rumble of the bus’s engine and the wail of a train horn at the railroad crossing—all with hardly any words on the page. 

Reserved, thoughtful readers who prefer to spend time lingering over illustrations or making up their own stories about the stories they read will especially appreciate One Boy Watching. It vividly conveys the experiences of those first-to-get-on, last-to-get-off students who witness a sunrise every morning and a sunset every evening as they mark the beginning and end of each school day.

The first day of school is a momentous occasion for many children. These picture books capture the experience with sparkle and style.

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